How a footballing bad lad made good

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Brighton's Charlie Oatway has struggled with reading all his life. Now he's written a book about it - and become an advocate for adult learning. Joseph Lee reports

It was a cruel twist of fate that the man born with the name Anthony Phillip David Terry Frank Donald Stanley Gerry Gordon Stephen James Oatway should be an undiagnosed dyslexic who struggled with reading and writing all his life.

Saddled with all the names of the Queens Park Rangers 1973 starting XI, he became known to family and friends as Charlie. Today, he is the thriving first-team coach at Brighton and Hove Albion football club, who, under the management of former Chelsea star Gus Poyet, stand at the top of League One.

But probably the last time Charlie Oatway heard his name read out in full, he was in the dock at the age of 21 charged with grievous bodily harm, after a fight in which he says he was defending a friend from racial abuse. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

With many of his family in and out of prison throughout his childhood, and having left school at 13, his life came to a crossroads and somehow ended up on the right path. Now Mr Oatway has become an advocate for adult learning and has written a book about his struggles with literacy, Tackling Life, which was published last week as part of the Quick Reads series of short books intended to help adults with reading problems.

Mr Oatway says his struggles with reading and writing are not over, though they have improved. "My reading is a lot better but my spelling is still non-existent," he says. So, like many footballers, he had help writing his story - in his case from Alan Sanders, director of Albion in the Community.

They first met in 2003, when Mr Oatway was nearing the end of his playing career at Brighton, being treated for an injury and worrying about his future. The team physiotherapist put him in touch with Mr Sanders, a former sixth-form college teacher who was running study centres for adults as part of the football club's community work.

Mr Oatway says: "There are some people in your life that you have got confidence in and that you're comfortable with, that you don't mind telling them about these issues.

"Alan said, `You've got time on your hands, start trying to read and to better yourself.' So I did. Once I started to do that, and he got me back in the classroom, my confidence grew."

Mr Oatway says that the supportive atmosphere of the adult study centres was in stark contrast to his schooling. No one knew he was dyslexic, and as he fell behind he became disruptive. Nobody seemed to mind much when he stopped attending altogether at 13. He managed to start playing for another school's football team without anyone worrying that he was not enrolled.

His father, a scrap-metal merchant who supplemented his income by stealing, was often in prison: Mr Oatway recounts that once, when his father was on the run after a robbery, he sought a safe house from the Kray twins. A cousin was accused of attempted murder, and his nephew was convicted of murder and two attempted murders in 2006 following a dispute over drug money.

His mother Doreen kept the family going by working as the manager of a shoe shop. When Mr Oatway was earmarked to go to a special unit which she branded a "breeding ground for criminals", it was decided he would leave school altogether, although he says that did not keep him from fights and breaking and entering.

But despite the difficulties of his upbringing and schooling, he says he has to share the responsibility. "I just think it's an issue with schools that were different to how they are now," he says. "But to blame people is a bit difficult - I've got to look at myself before I blame anyone else. It could have been different if I'd have sat down and really studied."

For years he had got through without needing to read. "It didn't have that drastic an effect on my life. I'm a footballer so it wasn't something I had to use much, and my wife would deal with issues that needed reading and writing at home," he says.

Occasionally, players who knew about his problems would play jokes on him. He recalls following teammates in a convoy of cars on the way to a reserve game when they gave him the slip, knowing that he would not be able to read the road signs. He ended up being fined for arriving late - but he shrugs it off as part of the locker-room banter.

A crunching tackle on Boxing Day in 2006, in a match against QPR, the team his father had named him after, left his leg shattered and his playing career over. It was then that the progress he had made in literacy opened up a second career.

He spent two years working for Mr Sanders on the community programmes, becoming a mentor for teenagers in schools and colleges across Sussex who were struggling with their work. His own recent history of re-entering education made him ideal for the role.

Mr Sanders remembers: "Charlie was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty. He became a mentor for kids who were struggling in different subjects. Players are highly motivated, so they can help kids focus . He worked with us for two years and could have had a career in it, no question. He's very good at what he does."

But instead the offer came in for him to become a first-team coach. Although it was a return to football, Mr Oatway says improving his reading and writing was vital to picking up his coaching badges.

"The qualification I'm doing now is the `A' coaching badge, and it's really difficult even for most educated people, let alone anyone with trouble like me," he says.

At Mr Sanders' urging, Mr Oatway has become an advocate for adults seeking help with basic skills needs - an issue which his book aims to address. He admits it was hard to go public with his difficulties at first.

"It's a little bit of a taboo subject, to say you can't read and write. But now I'd say to anyone, just go back and there's a lot more help out there. Whatever your problem, there's so much help that you should go back and try to improve your skills."



Charlie Oatway was fortunate to find himself at the football club with possibly the largest adult education programme in the country.

Alan Sanders, director of Albion in the Community, the charity set up by Brighton and Hove Albion, says they have 30 full-time staff and up to 150 part-timers, with only Charlton Athletic's programme rivalling them.

The trend started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as football tried to shed its reputation for hooliganism. Brighton had another reason for building up community work: after years without a stadium and sharing grounds, it is finally moving to its own 22,000-seat stadium. Contributions to the community were a condition of gaining planning permission for the site on greenbelt land.

After winning pound;1.7 million of project funding from the Learning and Skills Council, the charity set up adult education centres all over Sussex to help people with basic skills needs. Mr Sanders, a former PE teacher at Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College, says: "They are for people who often weren't so keen on going back to formal education, but they would come to the club.

"We thought at first that it was just going to be supporters. But we built such good relationships that the spread was pretty much 50-50 between men and women, and we had a diverse age range from 18 to 80. We had people who didn't necessarily like football."

The charity also offers mentoring for young people at risk of dropping out of education. Mr Oatway was among the first former Brighton players to sign up, and there are now four of them working in schools and colleges.

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